Dutch Golden Age painting  

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Girl with a Pearl Earring (ca. 1665, Het Meisje met de Parel) by Johannes Vermeer
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Girl with a Pearl Earring (ca. 1665, Het Meisje met de Parel) by Johannes Vermeer

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Dutch Golden Age painting was among the most acclaimed in the world at the time, during the 17th century. There was an enormous output of painting, so much so that prices declined seriously during the period. From the 1620s, Dutch painting broke decisively from the Baroque style typified by Rubens in neighbouring Flanders into a more realistic style of depiction, very much concerned with the real world. Types of paintings included historical paintings, portraiture, landscapes and cityscapes, still lifes and genre paintings. In the last four of these categories, Dutch painters established styles upon which art in Europe depended for the next two centuries. Paintings often had a moralistic message hidden under the surface. The Golden Age never really recovered from the French invasion of 1671, although there was a twilight period lasting until about 1710.

Dutch painters, especially in the northern provinces, tried to invoke emotion on the part of the spectator by letting him/her be a bystander on a scene of profound intimacy. Portrait painting thrived in the Netherlands in the 17th century. A great many portraits were commissioned by wealthy individuals. Group portraits similarly were often ordered by prominent members of a city's civilian guard, by boards of trustees and regents, and the like. Often group portraits were paid for by each portrayed person individually. The amount paid determined each person's place in the picture, either head to toe in full regalia in the foreground or face only in the back of the group. Sometimes all group members paid an equal sum, which was likely to lead to quarrels when some members gained a more prominent place in the picture than others. Allegories, in which painted objects conveyed symbolic meaning about the subject, were often applied. Many genre paintings, which seemingly only depicted everyday life, actually illustrated Dutch proverbs and sayings, or conveyed a moralistic message, the meaning of which is not always easy to decipher nowadays. Favourite topics in Dutch landscapes were the dunes along the western sea coast, rivers with their broad adjoining meadows where cattle grazed, often a silhouette of a city in the distance.

Rembrandt had by 1631 established such a good reputation that he received several assignments for portraits from Amsterdam. In about 1640, his work became more sober, reflecting the family tragedies that he had suffered. Exuberance was replaced by deeply felt inner emotions. Biblical scenes were now derived more often from the New Testament instead of the Old Testament. One of his most famous paintings is The Night Watch, which was completed in 1642, at the peak of Holland's golden age. The painting was commissioned to be hung in the banquet hall of the newly built Kloveniersdoelen (Musketeers' Meeting Hall) in Amsterdam.

Johannes Vermeer's works are admired for their transparent colours, careful composition, and brilliant use of light. Vermeer painted mostly domestic interior scenes, and even his two known landscapes are framed with a window. His works are largely genre pieces and portraits, with the exception of two cityscapes. One of his most well known works is Girl with a Pearl Earring

Utrecht School refers to a group of painters active in the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands in the early part of the 17th century. It is part of what is called Baroque. They were all strongly influenced by the then recently deceased Caravaggio, who died in 1610.

The Bamboccianti were a group of Dutch genre painters active in Rome from 1625-1700, during high and late Baroque. The themes of their canvases were typically small parlour paintings or etchings of everyday life, including peasants in picaresque or other scenes of daily life.

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Types of painting

A distinctive feature of the period, compared to earlier European painting, was the small amount of religious painting. Dutch Calvinism forbade religious painting in churches, and though biblical subjects were acceptable in private homes, relatively few were produced. The other traditional classes of history and portrait painting were present, but the period is more notable for a huge variety of other genres, sub-divided into numerous specialized categories, such as scenes of peasant life, landscapes, townscapes, landscapes with animals, maritime paintings, flower paintings and still lifes of various types. The development of many of these types of painting was decisively influenced by 17th-century Dutch artists.

The widely held theory of the "hierarchy of genres" in painting, whereby some types were regarded as more prestigious than others, led many painters to want to produce history painting. However this was the hardest to sell, as even Rembrandt found. Many were forced to produce portraits or genre scenes, which sold much more easily. In descending order of status the categories in the hierarchy were:

The Dutch concentrated heavily on the "lower" categories, but by no means rejected the concept of the hierarchy. Most paintings were relatively small – the only common type of really large paintings were group portraits. Painting directly onto walls hardly existed; when a wall-space in a public building needed decorating fitted framed canvas was normally used. For the extra precision possible on a hard surface many painters continued to use wooden panels, some time after the rest of Western Europe had abandoned them; some used copper plates, usually recycling plates from printmaking. In turn the number of surviving Golden Age paintings was reduced by them being overpainted with new works by artists throughout the 18th and 19th century – poor ones were usually cheaper than a new canvas, stetcher and frame. There was very little Dutch sculpture during the period; it is mostly found in tomb monuments and attached to public buildings, and small sculptures for houses are a noticeable gap, their place taken by silverware and ceramics. Painted delftware tiles were very cheap and common, if rarely of really high quality, but silver, especially in the auricular style, led Europe. With this exception, the best artistic efforts were concentrated on painting and printmaking.

Scenes of everyday life

genre painting during the Dutch Golden Age

Genre paintings show scenes that prominently feature figures to whom no specific identity can be attached – they are not portraits or intended as historical figures. Together with landscape painting, the development and enormous popularity of genre painting is the most distinctive feature of Dutch painting in this period, although in this case they were also very popular in Flemish painting. Many are single figures, like the Vermeer Milkmaid above; others may show large groups at some social occasion, or crowds. There were a large number of sub-types within the genre: single figures, peasant families, tavern scenes, "merry company" parties, women at work about the house, scenes of village or town festivities (though these were still more common in Flemish painting), market scenes, barracks scenes, scenes with horses or farm animals, in snow, by moonlight, and many more. In fact most of these had specific terms in Dutch, but there was no overall Dutch term equivalent to "genre painting" – until the late 18th century the English often called them "drolleries". Some artists worked mostly within one of these sub-types, especially after about 1625. Over the course of the century, genre paintings tended to reduce in size.

Though genre paintings provide many insights into the daily life of 17th-century citizens of all classes, their accuracy cannot always be taken for granted. Many which seemed only to depict everyday scenes actually illustrated Dutch proverbs and sayings or conveyed a moralistic message – the meaning of which may now need to be deciphered by art historians, though some are clear enough. Many artists, and no doubt purchasers, certainly tried to have things both ways, enjoying the depiction of disorderly households or brothel scenes, while providing a moral interpretation – the works of Jan Steen, whose other profession was as an innkeeper, are an example. The balance between these elements is still debated by art historians today. The titles given later to paintings often distinguish between "taverns" or "inns" and "brothels", but in practice these were very often the same establishments, as many taverns had rooms above or behind set aside for sexual purposes: "Inn in front; brothel behind" was a Dutch proverb. The Steen above is very clearly an exemplum, and though each of the individual components of it is realistically depicted, the overall scene is not a plausible depiction of a real moment; typically of genre painting, it is a situation that is depicted, and satirized.

The Renaissance tradition of recondite emblem books had, in the hands of the 17th-century Dutch – almost universally literate in the vernacular, but mostly without education in the classics – turned into the popularist and highly moralistic works of Jacob Cats, Roemer Visscher, and others, often based in popular proverbs. The illustrations to these are often quoted directly in paintings, and since the start of the 20th century art historians have attached proverbs, sayings and mottoes to a great number of genre works. Another popular source of meaning is visual puns using the great number of Dutch slang terms in the sexual area: the vagina could be represented by a lute (luit) or stocking (kous), and sex by a bird (vogelen), among many other options, and purely visual symbols such as shoes, spouts, and jugs and flagons on their side.

The same painters often painted works in a very different spirit of housewives or other women at rest in the home or at work – they massively outnumber similar treatments of men, in fact working class men going about their jobs are notably absent from Dutch Golden Age art, with landscapes populated by travellers and idlers but rarely tillers of the soil. This group of subjects was a Dutch invention, reflecting the cultural preoccupations of the age, and was to be adopted by artists from other countries, especially France, in the two centuries following.

The tradition developed from the realism and detailed background activity of Early Netherlandish painting, which Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder were among the first to turn into their principal subjects, also making use of proverbs. The Haarlem painters Willem Pieterszoon Buytewech, Frans Hals and Esaias van de Velde were important painters early in the period. Buytewech painted "merry companies" of finely dressed young people, with moralistic significance lurking in the detail. Van de Velde was also important as a landscapist, whose scenes included unglamorous figures very different from those in his genre paintings, typically set at garden parties in country houses. Hals was principally a portraitist, but also painted genre figures of a portrait size early in his career. A stay in Haarlem by the Flemish master of peasant tavern scenes Adriaen Brouwer, from 1625 or 1626 gave Adriaen van Ostade his lifelong subject, though he often took a more sentimental approach. Before Brouwer, peasants had normally been depicted outdoors; he usually shows them in a plain and dim interior, though van Ostade's sometimes occupy ostentatiously decrepit farmhouses of enormous size.

Van Ostade was as likely to paint a single figure as a group, as were the Utrecht Caravaggisti in their genre works, and the single figure, or small groups of two or three became increasingly common, especially those including women and children. The most notable woman artist of the period, Judith Leyster (1609–1660), specialized in these, before her husband, Jan Miense Molenaer, prevailed on her to give up painting. The Leiden school of fijnschilder ("fine painters") were renowned for small and highly finished paintings, many of this type. Leading artists included Gerard Dou, Gabriel Metsu, Frans van Mieris the Elder, and later his son Willem van Mieris, Godfried Schalcken, and Adriaen van der Werff.

This later generation, whose work now seems over-refined compared to their predecessors, also painted portraits and histories, and were the most highly regarded and rewarded Dutch painters by the end of the period, whose works were sought after all over Europe. Genre paintings reflected the increasing prosperity of Dutch society, and settings grew steadily more comfortable, opulent and carefully depicted as the century progressed. Artists not part of the Leiden group whose common subjects also were more intimate genre groups included Nicolaes Maes, Gerard ter Borch and Pieter de Hooch, whose interest in light in interior scenes was shared with Jan Vermeer, long a very obscure figure, but now the most highly regarded genre painter of all.

Landscapes and cityscapes

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Landscape painting was a major genre in the 17th century. Flemish landscapes (particularly from Antwerp) of the 16th century first served as an example. These had been not particularly realistic, having been painted mostly in the studio, partly from imagination, and often still using the semi-aerial view from above typical of earlier Netherlandish landscape painting in the tradition of Joachim Patinir, Herri met de Bles and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. A more realistic Dutch landscape style developed, seen from ground level, often based on drawings made outdoors, with lower horizons which made it possible to emphasize the often impressive cloud formations that were (and are) so typical in the climate of the region, and which cast a particular light. Favourite subjects were the dunes along the western sea coast, rivers with their broad adjoining meadows where cattle grazed, often with the silhouette of a city in the distance. Winter landscapes with frozen canals and creeks also abounded. The sea was a favourite topic as well since the Low Countries depended on it for trade, battled with it for new land, and battled on it with competing nations.

Important early figures in the move to realism were Esaias van de Velde (1587–1630) and Hendrick Avercamp (1585–1634), both also mentioned above as genre painters – in Avercamp's case the same paintings deserve mention in each category. From the late 1620s the "tonal phase" of landscape painting started, as artists softened or blurred their outlines, and concentrated on an atmospheric effect, with great prominence given to the sky, and human figures usually either absent or small and distant. Compositions based on a diagonal across the picture space became popular, and water often featured. The leading artists were Jan van Goyen (1596–1656), Salomon van Ruysdael (1602–1670), Pieter de Molyn (1595–1661), and in marine painting Simon de Vlieger (1601–1653), with a host of minor figures – a recent study lists over 75 artists who worked in van Goyen's manner for at least a period, including Cuyp.

From the 1650s the "classical phase" began, retaining the atmospheric quality, but with more expressive compositions and stronger contrasts of light and colour. Compositions are often anchored by a single "heroic tree", windmill or tower, or ship in marine works. The leading artist was Jacob van Ruisdael (1628–1682), who produced a great quantity and variety of work, using every typical Dutch subject except the Italianate landscape; instead he produced "Nordic" landscapes of dark and dramatic mountain pine forests with rushing torrents and waterfalls. His pupil was Meindert Hobbema (1638–1709), best known for his atypical Avenue at Middelharnis (1689, London), a departure from his usual scenes of watermills and roads through woods. Two other artists with more personal styles, whose best work included larger pictures (up to a metre or more across), were Aelbert Cuyp (1620–1691) and Philips Koninck (1619–1688). Cuyp took golden Italian light and used it in evening scenes with a group of figures in the foreground and behind them a river and wide landscape. Koninck's best works are panoramic views, as from a hill, over wide flat farmlands, with a huge sky.

A different type of landscape, produced throughout the tonal and classical phases, was the romantic Italianate landscape, typically in more mountainous settings than are found in the Netherlands, with golden light, and sometimes picturesque Mediterranean staffage and ruins. Not all the artists who specialized in these had visited Italy. Jan Both (d. 1652), who had been to Rome and worked with Claude Lorrain, was a leading developer of the sub-genre, which influenced the work of many painters of landscapes with Dutch settings, such as Aelbert Cuyp. Other artists who consistently worked in the style were Nicolaes Berchem (1620–1683) and Adam Pijnacker. Italianate landscapes were popular as prints, and more paintings by Berchem were reproduced in engravings during the period itself than those of any other artist.

A number of other artists do not fit in any of these groups, above all Rembrandt, whose relatively few painted landscapes show various influences, including some from Hercules Seghers (c.1589 – c.1638); his very rare large mountain valley landscapes were a very personal development of 16th-century styles. Aert van der Neer (d. 1677) painted very small scenes of rivers at night or under ice and snow.

Landscapes with animals in the foreground were a distinct sub-type, and were painted by Cuyp, Paulus Potter (1625–1654), Adriaen van de Velde (1636–1672) and Karel Dujardin (1626–1678, farm animals), with Philips Wouwerman painting horses and riders in various settings. The cow was a symbol of prosperity to the Dutch, hitherto overlooked in art, and apart from the horse by far the most commonly shown animal; goats were used to indicate Italy. Potter's The Young Bull is an enormous and famous portrait which Napoleon took to Paris (it later returned) though livestock analysts have noted from the depiction of the various parts of the anatomy that it appears to be a composite of studies of six different animals of widely different ages.

Architecture also fascinated the Dutch, churches in particular. At the start of the period the main tradition was of fanciful palaces and city views of invented Northern Mannerist architecture, which Flemish painting continued to develop, and in Holland was represented by Dirck van Delen. A greater realism began to appear and the exteriors and interiors of actual buildings were reproduced, though not always faithfully. During the century understanding of the proper rendering of perspective grew and were enthusiastically applied. Several artists specialized in church interiors. Pieter Jansz Saenredam, whose father Jan Saenredam engraved sensuous nude Mannerist goddesses, painted unpeopled views of now whitewashed Gothic city churches. His emphasis on even light and geometry, with little depiction of surface textures, is brought out by comparing his works with those of Emanuel de Witte, who left in the people, uneven floors, contrasts of light and such clutter of church furniture as remained in Calvinist churches, all usually ignored by Saenredam. Gerard Houckgeest, followed by van Witte and Hendrick van Vliet, had supplemented the traditional view along a main axis of the church with diagonal views that added drama and interest. Gerrit Berckheyde specialized in lightly populated views of main city streets, squares, and major public buildings; Jan van der Heyden preferred more intimate scenes of quieter Amsterdam streets, often with trees and canals. These were real views, but he did not hesitate to adjust them for compositional effect.

List of painters

The most famous Dutch painters of the 17th century were:

For a more comprehensive listing, see the List of Dutch painters

Less famous painters from this period were




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